Showtime’s Dexter is a drama following the life of vigilante Dexter Morgan—a police department blood spatter pattern analyst by day and a serial killer by night. In this most recent season, Dexter’s sister Debra knows about his double life and is conflicted with understanding the psychopathy of her mild mannered, soft spoken brother. Dexter explains:
Dexter: An alarm is going off inside my lizard brain.
Debra: Great, now my brother has a lizard brain!
Dexter: The amygdala, the most primitive part of the brain that senses danger. Harry taught me to listen to mine.
Debra: Well, you excuse me if I don’t put faith in your amygdala!
Dexter: But you already have, Deb…dozens of times. All the murderers I’ve helped you catch, who got brought down because of my hunches. My lizard brain has been your secret weapon all along, you just didn’t know it.
On Wednesday night, the Rubin Museum of Art (a Brain Awareness Week partner) held a talk with Michael C. Hall, Dexter’s title character, and Cambridge psychologist Dr. Kevin Dutton. In Dutton’s most recent book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, he examines the spectrum of psychopathy and where the average person falls in comparison to your run-of-the-mill serial killer. Using Dexter as a model, Dutton and Hall engaged in an enlightening discussion about psychopathy.
According to Dutton, there are five attributes that make up a psychopath. “[They] are focused, ruthless, fearless, empathetic, and most importantly decisive.” These qualities are easy to spot in a serial killer, but did you know you probably have a psychopath in your office? Dutton created The Great British Psychopath Survey; he found out that the three occupations with the highest rate of psychopaths were CEOs, lawyers, and media/TV professionals. Neurosurgeons were number six on the list. “You have to be focused, fearless, and lack empathy when doing surgery,” said Dutton. “You have to make quick decisions whether [what you’re doing is] right or wrong.” What separates the office psychopath from the Ted Bundys of the world is impulsivity. The social predator desires instant gratification.
People who rate high on the scale of psychopathy have an innate ability to detect vulnerability. In a conversation with serial killer Ted Bundy, Dutton learned that Bundy “could tell a good victim from the way she walked.” Dutton later turned this insight into an experiment in which he discovered that those who rated higher on the psychopathy scale were better able to point out a smuggler than those who rated low. As Dutton pointed out, “Perhaps we need a few more psychopaths in customs.”
The Lizard Brain
Dexter often describes his lizard brain, his serial killer instinct, as his “dark passenger.” In anatomical terms, this part of the brain is called the amygdala. Joshua Greene, a psychologist at Harvard University, came up with a moral dilemma experiment and monitored participants’ amygdalas through fMRI. His “Trolley experiment” involves two scenarios. In one, a railway trolley is hurtling down a track toward five innocent people. You have the power to flip a switch and derail the train, in turn saving these five people, who would have certainly died otherwise. However, there is another person trapped on the other side of the fork. The utilitarian in us would flip the switch, because one death is better than five, right? Dutton describes this as cold empathy, using reason and rational thought.
The second scenario is the same except that instead of flicking a switch you have to throw a large man over a bridge; his girth will stop the train and save the five people. Even though the same number of people are involved, Dutton points out that the average person would not be able to push the man off the bridge to save five others. The man on the bridge adds what Dutton calls “a personal moral dilemma” to the situation. For the average person, the amygdala would light up when the scenario went from impersonal to personal, signaling activity confounded by emotion. But for the psychopaths, Dutton observed no difference in amygdala activity when the scenario went from impersonal to personal, much like Dexter’s dark passenger. “In psychopaths there’s a neural curfew in that part of the brain that has no emotion under pressure. The average brain would be going crazy.”
Dutton made a great point by saying that we could all use a little psychopathy. Wouldn’t you like a little more focus, fearlessness, and decisiveness? Knowing how to control the dials, of course, is the essential part. When Hall was asked what qualities Dexter has that he would like to adopt, he said, “His capacity for stress management. The crazier things get (for Dexter), the cooler he feels. He tends to crave chaos because it soothes him. So I’d like to be cooler under pressure.” Our coworkers need not worry; we rated “average” in the Great British Psychopath Survey spectrum. How do you rate? Do you have a dark passenger?
You can watch Dexter Sunday nights on Showtime at 9pm. Dr. Kevin Dutton’s book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, is available in stores now.
--Blayne Jeffries and Angie Marin